What makes a smartphone feel like your own smartphone? What makes a smartphone feel like a smartphone from a specific manufacturer? These are two different viewpoints that need to work together to create a healthy ecosystem.

I’ve been spending time with Honor’s latest handset, the Honor Magic4 Pro, with a view to reviewing the new Android smartphone, and I’m going to explore that idea of customisation. How much of the Magic4 Pro experience is built on my own choices independent of any smartphone manufacturer, and how much is down to the choices made by Honor?

Let’s review the Honor Magic4 Pro in two parts. The second part covers the design, the camera and the specific software unique to the device, but I’ll start with the areas where application selection and user choice can take Honor’s handset (and in fact, almost any Android handset) far away from the intentions of the manufacturer.

First up is the app you will use the most frequently – although you might not spend a lot of time in it, the home screen and launcher. Manufacturers use this to create a unique look for their handsets that consumers can make a connection to. If you can create an affinity with how things are done and presented in one handset, it creates a subtle feeling of “I want a new phone that works like my old phone.”

Honor has its MagicUI to do this, just as Samsung has OneUI, OnePlus has OxygenOS, and Xiaomi has MIUI.

Unlike the iPhone, where you are locked into Apple’s vision of how things must work, Android allows you to switch over your launcher to another application While it doesn’t replace all of the UI elements in the handset, it does allow you to change the part that has the biggest visual impact.

I’m going with the Niagara Launcher as my replacement. It’s designed as a one-handed launcher, with a vertically scrolling list of apps that can be easily scrolled with your thumb to find the app, with both fine scroll or letter by letter available. You can also set several favourites for the main screen, a custom widget at the top, and a wide range of customisation through your wallpapers, icon packs, and more.

If your phone is running Google Mobile Services (which, unless you’ve went out of your way to choose something esoteric, will be a given), it will come with the Google Chrome web browser. But you’re not limited to this. Unlike Apple – which currently forces every web browser to use the WebKit rendering engine – Android allows you to install any web engine and to set this as the default.

You’ve got a wide range of choices here. I’ll flag up Edge (a good choice if you work extensively in Microsoft’s cloud), Opera (which offers a data saver mode), Firefox (a ridiculous amount of customisation options), DuckDuckGo (heavily focused on privacy).

Depending on what I’m doing, I tend to switch between Edge and DuckDuckGo.

Again, Google ensures that its own apps are always going to be available, and again Android’s app ecosystem offers a wide range of alternatives. These personal information management (PIM) apps aren’t tied as tightly to a handset; they are more likely tied to whichever cloud-based system a user is working with. Microsoft’s Outlook is the obvious answer here, but you have other options for your calendar and contacts, and significantly more if you need a standalone email client.

The biggest personalisation you can have are in your choice of applications. Apps allow you to sculpt your phone as you want it. I have my goto apps, which include the password and login manager 1Password, Microsoft’s OneNote for organising thoughts and ideas, PlayerFM for podcasting, VLC for audio and video playback, and (perhaps most importantly for my own health) Medisafe, which keeps track of and reminds me of my ongoing medication requirements.

In all of this, it might be challenging to pick out what makes a good phone stand out. Look at the specifications of phones in each pricing tier and you’ll find the numbers in broad agreement. The top-end handsets at the start of a calendar year will run the latest 8 series Qualcomm Snapdragon (or the equivalent from the likes of Mediatek or Samsung), memory and storage numbers will be similar.

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When the headline numbers are in agreement, and the key parts of your software experience are not tied to the brand name on the phone, how do manufacturers argue that their devices are better than the device three stands along at Mobile World Congress?

The biggest impact is the camera. The push for better images is the number one battleground for smartphones in the current climate. Multiple lenses for taking different styles of photos, computational photography to combine and interpolate as much data as possible to improve the image quality both for stills and video; multiple different processing options for low light, fast movement, portraits and landscapes. This is where manufacturers can make quantifiable differences.

It’s also one of the few areas where the built-in app will be the way forward. With so much work being done on the data from the camera sensor, the fine-tuning of the process happens in software. That means imaging is tightly tied to the manufacturer’s camera app. If you want access to all the promised features, you’ll have to go with the manufacturer’s options.

While Android 12 does offer developers better access to the camera that may allow for the improved hardware and software gains to be available outside of the manufacturer’s own app. Until that becomes standard practice between manufacturers, the camera will remain one area where differences between handsets and manufacturers will be notable.

That’s balanced out by the vast majority of cameras found on mid- and high-end handsets able to provide a “more than good enough” image for the average user.

There’s also something not only a lot more visual but also a lot more tactical. What’s on the outside of the device. Although the form factor of the smartphone is pretty much set (as close to 100 per cent screen on the front of the device, curved edges options; power and volume buttons on either side; and a ridiculous number of camera lenses at the rear) this is where a manufacturer can create an identity and a brand.

That could be through a distinctive feature around the camera lens. The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro’s horizontal bar not only holds all the optics but also makes a statement of “this is Pixel”; notification lights, LEDs, and features on the rear of the handset, RedMagic’s glowing logo or the upcoming notification circle on Nothing’s Phone (1)); or physical representations of the UI, OnePlus’s three way mute/vibrate/alert switch is the standout here.

Finally, let’s not forget just how much needs to go on between the high-level “what the user can see” and the “base Android code”. All of the hardware elements need to talk to each other, and everything needs to stay balanced. Power needs to be managed, thermals need to stay under control, power needs to be there when needed and conserved when not. And every manufacturer has to do this on their own for each handset; in some cases with multiple versions of the same handset given any SKU variations).

So yes, I can pick up a handset like the Honor Magic4 Pro and bring in my favorite apps. But the experience still relies on sensible decisions made by the manufacturer

One thing to note is that Honor has another smartphone ahead of the Magic4 Pro, the Magic4 Ultra. If you’re looking for a camera experience that pushes the specifications and capabilities, you should consider stepping up. The Magic4 Pro camera system is a little bit less… image sensors in the primary camera lens and the ultrawide lens are smaller than the Ultra.

The lack of optical image stabilisation in these two lenses is of more importance. This is particularly noticeable in low-light situations where colour is less distinct than expected. Given the strong color reproduction in good light, this is a touch disappointing, although we’re always talking about small margins in head-to-head comparisons. For the average user, the Magic4 Pro images will deliver a great experience, and the aforementioned average user is likely expecting a little bit of fall-off in quality in low-light and night-time shots.

What they do get is a camera that feels tuned towards daytime and shots in good light, but it’s a camera which sacrifices a little bit more than “the normal” in lower lights. The lack of optical image stabilisation will contribute to this, and if this is critical to you (and you’re looking to stay with the Honor brand) then the Honor Magic4 Ultra is for you.

A look at the rear of the Honor Magic4 Pro shows an expansive circular camera island, which makes a strong statement on the imaging capabilities as well as setting a distinctive look for the Honor brand. I personally prefer centreline cameras rather than the off-centre favoured by many manufacturers. It reduces the ‘wobble’ in a handset when on a desktop, although most users pop a case on their phone so this isn’t as much of a deal in the real world as you would think.

Bonus points to Honor for including a simple TPU protective case in the box, something else that helps the brand stick in the mind.

I’m less enamoured with the display. Its curved glass and the large oblong selfie camera cutout on the top right of the screen. The latter is a necessary choice, especially when Honor has packed in a depth-sensing second lens that also doubles up for biometric facial recognition duties.

Specification wise the display delivers. At 6.81 inches this is one of the biggest OLED displays in this part of the market. it has a variable refresh rate, taking it down to 1 frame per second if needed (and 120 fps at the top end). Resolution is a touch short of QHD (it offers 1312 x 2848 pixels) so there is a compromise here for those of you with pin-sharp eyes.

One thing about the display is that it occupies a lot of the curved glass, which means the edge of the display shows clear signs of, if not distortion, a curving of the display. This is most noticeable when scrolling through timelines which span the screen without any guttering, and also when watching videos. Because of the tight viewing angles, you can see the image fading to gray at the top and bottom of full-screen videos.

Turning to the software, Honor is running its own variant of Android 12 under the MagicUI brand. MagicUI itself is but on the principles of Huawei’s EMUI – those familiar with the corporate comings and goings will remember that Honor was a brand previously owned by Huawei Technologies). One advantage Honor has is MagicUI comes with Google Play Services, so western markets have access to all the apps and services they would expect from a Google/Android smartphone.

Like many of the Chinese-based Android systems, MagicUI leans heavily into customisation options, but these are relatively easy to use as they are grouped under their application. If you’ve purchased any themes previously, you’ll find them here.

MagicUI also offers a number of privacy controls for your data. You can lock your files behind a password or a biometric. That could be at a single file level, a folder of data, or even an entire app can be locked out from everyday use.

There are a few gotchas that are worth noting. Honor is pre-installing a number of apps, including Netflix and Trip.com, presumably to help the company’s bottom line. Thankfully these can be un-installed in the normal way, as long you are aware you can do this.

You also only get two years of Android updates guaranteed. For a device close to £1000 here in the UK, that feels a short amount of time to see your new handset go from brand new to unsupported. This is an unfortunate choice by Honor.

While you can heavily personalise your phone – from the choice of wallpaper through to apps that you live in day-to-day – as you switch from phone to phone, you are still bound by the underlying hardware.

As its first flagship, Honor has hit many of the main bullet points needed. It has created a distinctive look around the handset that could, over time, be seen as the signature look. MagicUI has a long history (given its roots with EMUI) and offers a consistent environment, although offering just two years of updates is out of step with other handsets at this price point.

That last point feels like an easy point to address. Making a commitment to support for one or two more Android releases would increase the value for money offered by the handset. Purists will always look for a better camera, but I feel the Magic4 Pro delivers a good day-to-day experience for photos and video.

Honor can be proud of its first flagship handset as it goes through a list of things to improve for the next generation. And I can go on tailoring the handset to my own way of working.

Now read the latest smartphone headlines in Forbes’ weekly Android Circuit column…

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